By Jeff Huebner

When the State Street mall was created in 1979, it was supposed to be the key to a revitalized downtown of pedestrian plazas, street activity, and shopping. But after 17 years, the mall has been acknowledged as a failure. A $25 million renovation project, scheduled to be completed in November, will reopen the street to cars and taxis and beautify the strip with elegant subway kiosks, historical markers in the pavement, planters filled with trees, and 1920s-style lampposts. But it may also mean the banishment of public art from State Street.

Four years ago Bruce Nauman’s neon work Human Nature/Life Death was removed from its site at State and Madison (it finally resurfaced last summer inside the Cultural Center), and last month Being Born, by local sculptor Virginio Ferrari, was uprooted from the corner of State and Washington. Unless you count the park outside the Washington Library, designed by east coast sculptor Ronald Jones, the street is now without public art.

Are there plans for including art in the renovation? “Not that I know of,” says Pat Matsumoto of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which owns the Nauman and Ferrari sculptures.

A longtime resident of New Mexico who was born in San Francisco in 1941, Nauman is considered one of the most influential–and restless–creative forces on the American art scene. A reclusive artist who has eluded categorization and holds infrequent exhibits, Nauman nevertheless achieved marquee status in the booming 80s. Since he quit painting in 1965, he’s created videos, photographs, drawings, sculptures, mixed-media installations, performances, sound systems, and body art. He began making neon works in the late 60s.

Nauman has said his neon artworks use “public means of communication for private purposes.” Old beer signs that had been left lying around his studio in a converted grocery store served as an inspiration. When he hung his first work in the window, he says, “It was just another neon sign until someone paid attention. Then when you read it, you had to think about it.”

Human Nature/Life Death is a six-foot neon sculpture that blinks four pairs of emotionally charged, pastel-colored words–life/death, love/hate, pleasure/pain, and human nature/animal nature–in a pattern that repeats every few minutes. Nauman created it in 1983, funded by Chicago Sculpture International (not the same organization as Sculpture Chicago). In May 1985 it was one of 18 works displayed in Mile/4, an exhibit on the State Street mall that was held concurrently with the Chicago International Art Exposition at Navy Pier. It was mounted inside a Carson Pirie Scott window, inviting passersby to reflect on human experience, from the intimate to the universal, and their own roles as consumers in society.

In June 1985 Human Nature/Life Death won the Mile/4’s $50,000 purchase prize. The judges cited the “maturity of the work, the international stature of the artist, and the work’s relevance to current artistic concerns.” The accounting firm of Arthur Andersen & Company then donated the piece to the city, with the request that it be permanently installed in a public site. The city placed it at street level inside a CTA subway exit, near the corner of State and Madison, early the next year.

While the sign’s metaphysical message could be construed as an pointed comment on the whirl of activity in a shopping district–hints of menace and mortality in the marketplace–its flashing language could just as easily have been lost amid the commercial signage. Perhaps Nauman took delight in the fact that the piece competed all too well with the mall’s commodity-driven clutter: if you didn’t look too closely or for too long, the artwork might seem like just another neon sign advertising caramel corn, superpretzels, or pizza.

After being dismantled from its spot on State Street, Human Nature/Life Death was lent to the Washington University Gallery of Art in Saint Louis, where it was included in the exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Light Works.” The show ran from January to March 1993. “You can thank us for cleaning it,” says Joe Ketner, the gallery director and exhibit curator. “A lot of dirt had accumulated, and it was absolutely filthy. We even put a new transformer on it.”

When the piece returned to Chicago, a permanent home was sought for it in anticipation of the State Street renovation project. But it took more than two years for the work to finally land inside the Cultural Center, where it’s neatly framed between the Doric columns of the Randolph Street entrance.

“The environment at the mall wasn’t exactly the friendliest for a piece like that,” says the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Matsumoto. “The glass in the subway wasn’t always clear, and you never got to see the neon as well. But now it couldn’t be in a better location. You’re able to see it better. It’s been cleaned up and fixed–it needs a lot of maintenance and needs to be in a sheltered spot. It really lights up and enlivens the porch, since it’s kind of dim right there.”

Though it’s easily visible from the street, one could question whether Human Nature/Life Death’s ironic power is diminished in an austere institutional setting; it seems to be designed for a bustling social space with signs of the commodity culture. But what the neon may lose in context it may gain in a more appreciative audience. It’s a tricky trade-off.

Virginio Ferrari’s Being Born, a hulking, circular stainless-steel sculpture that releases a continuous flow of water into a reflecting pool, was installed on the northeast corner of State and Washington in 1982. It was the first outdoor sculpture on the mall–and apparently the last.

“The statue is tremendously wide, and there’s no room for it on the proposed sidewalks,” says George Panages, an engineer with the city’s Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the State Street renovation project.

Ferrari was born into a family of sculptors in Verona in 1937. He began his career by helping his father cut marble. In 1966 he came to Chicago under the sponsorship of hotel-chain magnate and philanthropist Albert Pick Jr. and served as an instructor and sculptor-in-residence at the University of Chicago for the next ten years. He fashioned his works in the historic Midway Studios, founded in 1906 by renowned sculptor Lorado Taft. Ferrari became a full-time sculptor when he opened his own studio in 1977.

Working primarily in bronze, Ferrari says he’s created about 20 mostly abstract sculptures for public places. These include pieces at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, DePaul University, the Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, and Ravinia. He’s currently working on a sculpture for the engineering department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Being Born stands about 20 feet high, and its reflecting pool is around 18 feet in diameter. It consists of two standing circular elements, one within the other. The outer circle has an opening, which suggests the sculpture is about the process of giving birth. Yet, Ferrari says he had something more in mind.

Celebrating both art and technology, the sculpture was commissioned by the Tool and Die Institute in Park Ridge and pays tribute to the industry that fabricated it. Ferrari has said that “the circular element symbolizes the precision and skill of this industry. The two stainless-steel elements fit exactly into each other, symbolizing the process of die making.” He says the outer circle’s opening points to the continued growth of the industry. The Tool and Die Institute donated the piece to the city in 1982.

But Being Born, like much “plop” art of the 70s and 80s, began to outlive its usefulness; such pieces were commonly imposed on public spaces with little, if any, regard for the site or social context. Most of the plop art found in civic plazas was deposited there in compliance with government “percent for art” mandates, which designated 1 percent or more of construction budgets for the creation of public artworks. Though Being Born was not the by-product of government largesse, it shared plop art’s lack of relevance to the environment. (Why should a tribute to the tool and die industry be on the State Street mall?) Probably few people who regularly passed the sculpture–or sat on it–could tell you what it stood for, much less who did it.

“I liked the location there, but I had the feeling the street was losing its charisma,” says Ferrari, a Hyde Park resident who has a studio in River West. “There wasn’t so much evening traffic in the area. After 5 or 5:30 the street was kind of dead. I felt like the piece had been left on the side. I felt like I was losing it.”

About two years ago the Department of Cultural Affairs informed Ferrari that the sculpture would be moved to make way for the street renovation. He took the news in stride. “When you create a piece of music, even with all the [copyright] stipulations, it belongs to the public. Art is for everyone,” he says. Being Born was removed from State Street on April 1 and now sits wrapped in plastic in the parking lot of the Pepper Construction Company garage at 417 W. Chicago. It’s expected to be installed by next month near an entrance to the Kennedy Expressway, on a landscaped traffic island at Ohio and Orleans.

“I’ll miss it, but I feel very happy about the new location,” says the sculptor. “The piece will now be more visible in the park any time of the day.”

It’s not a real public park though; pedestrians aren’t allowed on the traffic island, a little space with shrubs, grass, flags, and a sign that welcomes you to Chicago on one side and thanks you for visiting on the other. But it’s a fitting site for a sculpture that honors the precise metal-working skills of die making. Steel, after all, was used to forge all those vehicles entering and leaving the feeder ramp.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Alberto Ferrari/Michael Tropea.